Are Twitter's Sports Trolls Out of Control?

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1. Devin McCourty Tweets While Playing in the Super Bowl (Sort of)

The Los Angeles Lakers -- a star-stacked superteam with four potential Hall of Famers -- have struggled out of the gate this NBA season, and many have placed the blame squarely on new head coach Mike Brown, who was fired on Friday after just five games. Fan frustration, however, reached an ugly crescendo earlier this week, with sports trolls using Twitter to threaten Brown's teenage son, according to an Orange County Register report.

That's just the latest in a seemingly increasing series of harassments and even death threats against sports figures. When NFL player Kyle Wilson was hit with death threats in January, the incident was perceived as -- if not unprecedented -- novel and shocking. Since then, reports of players being threatened on Twitter have become more and more common. Sportscaster Erin Andrews was a high profile victim less than three weeks ago, and posted this response:

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The growing frequency and severity of sports trolling has raised a number of relevant questions: Have Twitter's sports trolls gone too far? Can anything be done about them? And, if not, what are the consequences?

A Spiraling Culture of Abuse

Bill Voth, whose company Spiracle Media helps with social media for a number of colleges as well as NBA star Stephen Curry and Olympic gold medalist Ricky Berens, says he's seen a rise in venomous, execrable behavior by fans on Twitter. He also believes it could eventually lead athletes and celebrities -- who played an integral role in raising the microblogging network to its current omnipresence and popularity -- to migrate away.

"It just seems like it's every week now, and it's gone from just small trolling to threats of physical harm," he told Mashable. "Trolls are getting louder and more powerful, and I think ultimately this is one of the biggest threats to Twitter itself."

In addition to physical threats, players regularly receive racial abuse and overly harsh criticism after injuries or disappointing performances. According to Voth, Curry was inundated with "dozens" of messages, many of them vulgar, each day while dealing with nagging ankle problems that forced him out of fantasy basketball lineups last season.

"This sounds cheesy, but these athletes and celebrities are humans too," Voth says. "When you keep picking at them and sending them messages that they suck, it could get out of hand and eventually affect Twitter's business model."

There's also the question of what would happen if crazed but, by all appearances, delusional and harmless online troll actually carried out a tweeted threat of physical harm. That would obviously raise the stakes and attention paid to harassment, but likely not have any direct effect on Twitter, according to Bradley Shear, an attorney who specializes in social media issues.

"It would be very difficult to hold Twitter and/or any other social media liable for death threats made on their platform," Shear told Mashable in an email. "However, under the right set of facts, it is conceivable that a digital platform would be liable if they knew or should have known about a potential danger and they did not properly warn others."

Anti-Troll Legislation

A Twitter spokesperson pointed to the company's terms of abusive behavior and law enforcement guidelines, but also emphasized the notion that social media doesn't motivate people to express feelings they don't already have. The company says it follows up on every reported case of abuse, and works to facilitate law enforcement investigations when applicable. Twitter, however, has also long been vocal about its stance on not moderating content.

While it may seem repulsive in the United States, where freedom of speech is a sacred trope of national identity, trolls who harass athletes in England can be prosecuted and land in jail. In one high-profile case this summer, British diver Tom Daley outed a hateful abuser during the Olympics, and the troll was later arrested. In March a racist Twitter troll was sentenced to 56 days in jail.

Voth, for one, doesn't rule out the possibility that similar legislation could eventually be a necessity stateside.

"It's gone from bad to worse in just a year or two, so what's it going to be like in another year or two?" he says. "Is this something where we need to pass laws against trolls?"

Do you think sports trolls -- or Twitter trolls in general -- are out of control, or just an unfortunate reality that can't be dealt with? How would you like to see the issue addressed, either by Twitter or legally?

BONUS GALLERY: Our Favorite Sports Social Media Moments of 2012

1. Devin McCourty Tweets While Playing in the Super Bowl (Sort of)

As New England Patriot Devin McCourty took on the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI, his followers were still able to receive real-time updates from his social feeds. But he wasn't sneaking tweets between plays or during timeouts. Devin and twin brother Jason, who plays for the Tennessee Titans, share their Twitter and Facebook accounts. The Super Bowl showcased one of the more creative approaches to social media in the sports world.

Image courtesy of Devin and Jason McCourty's Instagram.

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Thumbnail image credit: Mashable composite, iStockphoto asiseeit

This story originally published on Mashable here.

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